Monday, February 15, 2010

Learning to Live Lean, Clean and Green

I counted her shoes strewn onto the floor of her bedroom closet. Twenty-three-and-a-half pairs. That’s right, “and a half”. As in, a half pair of shoes. One unpaired shoe.

“So-o-o-o Terri,” I said, dragging the first word out. “A half pair of shoes?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I keep hanging on to it in case I ever find the other half.”

“And how long have you been looking?”

“I guess about three years,” she said, somewhat sheepishly. “Maybe I should get rid of it?”

And I wondered quietly why that was even a question for her.

She had originally asked for my help in organizing her home office, which looked amazingly like someone had taken her supplies and stuff, stood in the doorway and rather enthusiastically shoveled it in the room. There was her paper recycling waste basket that had overflowed so much I couldn’t tell where the waste ended and her filing system began. Tucked in the corner was her “open space closet”, which doubled as a piece of exercise equipment that hadn’t been used for its original purpose since she discovered she didn’t have to go to her bedroom closet to hang up (read, throw) her clothes.

Of course to reach her office we had to pass through the gauntlet of her kitchen, which she proudly called, “the war zone.” The narrow pathway through what her rental agent called a “cozy kitchenette” was lined with stacked crap on one side, counter-stacked with crap on the other side. And I couldn’t help but wonder if that muffled sound I heard as we passed the sink was last week’s leftover pizza, growing and growling and patiently biding its time waiting to ambush whoever was brave enough to do the dishes.

I’m not saying she lived like a pig, but, … well, actually I guess I am.

Most of us are familiar with the old saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” I think her motto was more like, “Something should go somewhere but if it doesn’t fit there then just put it somewhere else.”

Hopefully, you’re not in a similar position. But whether you need a lot or a little help, here are my five favorite tips for de-cluttering your space.

One: Start Empty. This is perhaps the simplest, although not necessarily the easiest way to organize a room. Start with a clean, minimalist space. This of course requires that you have someplace else to temporarily put the stuff, but it’s a lot simpler to put into a room only what you actually need if you can start with empty walls and an empty floor.

Two: Place Deliberately and Slowly. I don’t mean work in slow motion, but don’t hurry to get stuff back in the room. Take your time and be sure that what you put in your space actually belongs in that space.

Three: Divide and Conquer. Now that your stuff is out of the space, look at its pieces not its mass. It’s not one big mess but ten little messes. Or maybe it’s fifteen little messes. Or maybe it’s even twenty-three and a half little messes. The point is to break it down to pieces small enough to feel good about daily progress as you work through to separate the wheat from the chaff. Not everything you have is something you should keep. Be thoughtful as you go through your stuff.

Four: The Smaller the Space the Fewer the Stuff. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen people try to stuff a Hummer’s worth of car into a Mini Cooper’s worth of garage. Seriously, you really don’t need so much stuff. If you want a little eye-opener about our attachment to stuff, rent the 1986 movie “Labyrinth” and wait for the scene featuring the Junk Lady. “Oh, what have we got here?” she begins. “Oh, your little bunny rabbit. You like your little bunny rabbit. Don't you? Yes! There's Betsy Bou! You remember Betsy Bou don't you? Yes. Oh, it's a pencil box. Got lots of pencils in it too, and, oh! Here's your panda slippers. You know how much you love your panda slippers. You never wanted them thrown away, did you? Oh, it's little Horsey. You love little Horsey, don't you dear? You got a printing game, you have! Oh, here's a treasure. Here's dear old Flopsy. You'll want her. Charlie Bear. Right. There's Charlie Bear for you…” It should make you think twice about holding on to so many things.

Five: Get Help. I don’t mean you must hire a professional organizer. Get a friend or family member who can help you sort through your stuff with a little detachment. Someone who can ask you questions about why you think you really want to keep things in your space. Someone who can dispassionately (or passionately, if need be) say, “No.” Someone who understands your end goal is to live lean, clean and green.

Think you can’t do it? You can.

Live light.

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